Confidence Woman

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is on a mission to change the balance of power. Why she just might pull it off

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Peter Bohler for TIME

Strategy meeting Sandberg with team members

Sandberg acknowledges all these obstacles but drills down on one in particular, the one she says receives the least attention: the invisible barrier in women’s minds. “Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions,” she writes. It’s not exactly that they’re to blame, she notes. Females are raised from birth to have different expectations. There’s an ambition gap, and it’s wreaking havoc on women’s ability to advance. “My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.”

Do women want that kind of power? Are men hardwired to want the big paycheck, the high-horsepower career more? How much of women’s tendency to lean back stems from something deep in the DNA? Research findings suggest that women are as ambitious as men but that their ambition expresses itself in a different way. For Sandberg, these are not relevant issues, just as it’s unclear whether humans are genetically predisposed to eat too much or do so because of the food around them. Either way, it’s causing obesity and needs to change. “We have to evolve to meet new circumstances,” she says. “I’d like to see where boys and girls end up if they get equal encouragement—I think we might have some differences in how leadership is done.”

Sandberg’s critics are quick to remark, Easy for you to say. She has two Harvard degrees, a rich but menschy CEO husband, vast personal wealth, all the household help she needs and a flexible workplace. She walked into two of the right companies—Google and Facebook—at the right time. Women lower on the scale of money and education may wonder just how Sandberg expects them to lean in to their paycheck jobs. And for her to suggest that other women aren’t doing the right things to be successful, well, it’s what many people are calling ballsy, as in that’s what a guy would say. Her thesis has already drawn the ire of other women working in the same field. (Men have been less voluble. This is no-win territory for them.)

(MORE: Dominique Browning: More Ways Women Sabotage Themselves)

“Are we going to spend another 20 years trying to make women adapt to a system that doesn’t fit them?” asks Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, who runs a global management consultancy, 20-first, that helps companies achieve greater gender balance. She points to data from McKinsey that businesses with more women on their boards are more profitable. “Companies need women. It’s a problem for them if women aren’t advancing.” She thinks Sandberg’s message is the wrong one. “It’s insulting to women to say they need to become more like men to succeed.”

To be fair, that’s not exactly what Sandberg is saying. For all her success, she’s nothing like a man. She may currently have thousands of people saying “Right!” to her, but she’s refined her technique since elementary school. Now it blends an overwhelming amount of data with a weapons-grade ability to nurture and an exquisite organizational acumen. She’s like an escapee from a Star Trek episode in which Spock sired a child with an empath.

Take her role at Facebook. COOs aren’t usually the rock stars in an organization. They’re the nuts-and-bolts guys—usually guys—executing the CEO’s will and hoping to get the top job. Sandberg’s approach has been a little different.

“She built the whole business part of Facebook,” says Mark Zuckerberg, the social juggernaut’s hoodie-wearing CEO. “I didn’t know anything about running a company. [We] knew where we wanted to get, but we were lacking someone who was a visionary at how you work at large scale.” The company had about 70 million users and $150 million in revenue before she joined in 2008. Now it has a billion users and recently reported revenues of $1.59 billion for the quarter. “Some people emanate ‘I’m a pro at what I do. And I’m such a pro that when you’re around me, you’re going to want to be more of a pro too,'” says Chris Cox, Facebook’s implausibly young, handsome and Zen VP of product. “And that’s how it felt when she showed up.”

Nobody at Facebook has an office. Sandberg sits two desks down from Zuckerberg in a corner of one of the social network’s parking garage–size open-plan buildings in Menlo Park, Calif. Next to her is a pillar with “I Love You, Mom” painted in childish letters, created during a visit to Mom’s workplace by her 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. Opposite her sits her longtime assistant Camille Hart, who works on the multicolored megascreen spreadsheet that is her boss’s schedule. When Sandberg wants to talk to Zuckerberg, which is often, she spins around on her chair and literally leans in.

Passionate even for Facebook, where messianic is the default attitude, Sandberg’s a huge fan of the word huge. As in, “That is huge.” “It’s a huge problem.” “This is hugely important.” Her second favorite word seems to be genuinely, although to be fair, she’s partial to all adverbs. She gestures continually, with her fingers bent at the second knuckle, as if she’s mixing pizza dough or winding yarn. She’s an ardent listmaker and is never without a little notebook. Each page is either a project or a person, and she rips them out when the tasks are done. “I feel my to-do list,” she says.

(MORE: Caitlin Flanagan: What About the Children?)

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